Monday, June 27, 2005

Cooking for Two

So you've invited a date over to your place for dinner, and you don't know what to cook. What were you thinking? You were probably thinking that you wanted to get inside his pants, but you didn't have the guts to say "Come on over for some horizontal quality time, and then we'll grab a pizza." Or you were thinking that you like this guy enough to want more than just a quickie. Or you were thinking that you'd like to cook, but if you were thinking that, then you don't need my advice, do you?

Regardless, you've landed yourself in this predicament, and you need my help to get you out of it. I could, of course, just tell you what to cook, but that would be giving you a fish, and I want to teach you how to fish. Sooner or later, you're going to have to cook a second dinner for the same guy, and if you make the exact same meal twice, your romantic prospects will fade to black faster than you can say "I burned the pfeffernussen." So there are some principles to bear in mind. (I regret to inform my hetero readers that these same principles may not apply to opposite-sex dating. If you have invited your potential boyfriend over to dinner, I suggest that you order a pizza and give him lots of beer. I hear that works.)

1. If a guy accepts your dinner invitation, he intends to have sex with you. And on the same night. It might be before dinner, it might be after dinner, it might be between the soup and the entree. It might be all three (though, sadly, two of the three is generally the most you should hope for). The point is that you have to be prepared and choose an appropriate menu.

2. Choose foods that don't require split-second timing. If you have steaks under the broiler and your date hoists you over his shoulder and carries you into the bedroom, by the time you come back, you'll have charcoal. (This has, in fact, happened to me, though I was the one doing the hoisting and not the one doing the cooking; I would have known better.)

3. Have everything ready before he arrives. You may want to dazzle men with your culinary mojo, but that's what you have friends for. Your date does not want to know that you can flip an omelet; he wants you to feed him with your fork. Besides, all that last minute stove work can make you sweat, and that just isn't attractive. You will, of course, have to do some minimal kitchen work to get dinner on the table and to demonstrate that you didn't just buy and repackage take out, but you want his attention on your eyes, not on your ability to fold egg whites without deflating the mousse.

4. Don't start dinner too quickly. This rule may seem antithetical to rule 3, but while you want everything ready to go before he gets there, you don't want him to know that everything's ready to go. Why? Because if you're enjoying your first glass of wine on the sofa and you get frisky, you don't want to have to put off the HQT because the first course has to be eaten RIGHT NOW. Food is better after you've worked up an appetite, right?

5. The right wine is important. Not only did you not have the balls to ask this guy over explicitly for HQT, he didn't have the balls to suggest it himself, so a little bit of liquid assistance with eroding inhibitions is a good thing. Ideally, you'll have a light, dry red wine so that you can give him a glass as soon as he arrives and can continue to use the same wine throughout dinner, or at least until dessert. Sangria is an acceptable alternative, but don't make it too sweet, please.

6. Dessert should be portable. If you have gotten through soup and the entree without any breaks for play, then you obviously need to change the mood, so tell him that dessert will be in the living room. Ask him to have a seat on the sofa. This will give each of you the opportunity to gather the courage that you so obviously lack. If you didn't make it as far as dessert before achieving the horizontal, then you should have dessert in bed. I will leave it up to you whether you want to feed it to him or let him eat it off of you. Chacun a son gout, I reckon.

7. Mood matters. You don't have to go out and buy Lenox, but set a reasonably nice table. You don't need to go overboard (unless you're a bottom, in which case, go ahead and pull out all the stops, I guess), but light a couple of candles and use cloth napkins. Select music that's familiar but not too loud, not too slow, and not too serious.

Armed with these principles, it should be (relatively) easy to come up with an appropriate menu and plan of attack. Soup is always a good starter. If the weather is warm, serve something cold, such as gazpacho. (You could also serve cold vichyssoise, but it's so much better hot that it's a shame to do so. Just turn up the air conditioning.) If the weather's cold, then most soups will do just fine for extended periods over very low heat. Just don't pick anything too thick: heavy soups scorch more easily, and they dull the appetites too quickly. And don't serve too much. Six to eight ounces is plenty.

The entree is always going to be the trickiest part of the meal to pull off in a dating situation. There are plenty of entrees that can be made in a crockpot and can be held for hours, but most of these are too heavy. You don't want all of your date's blood up in his stomach, digesting his food. A not-too-heavy version of coq au vin (cut the breast pieces in half) or a nice ratatouille will work. Poached fish, especially salmon, also works. If you're serving a cold meat or fish, make sure that the starch is hot. The microwave is your best friend here. You can make a wild rice pilaf (one cup wild rice cooked in four cups of chicken broth, then combined with half a cup of currants, and a quarter cup of toasted pine nuts) the day before and reheat it in about one minute in the microwave. Make sure that the bowl you're reheating in is tightly covered with plastic wrap so that the pilaf reheats evenly. Your green vegetable can be cold. Consider a cucumber salad or some asparagus which you will have broiled with a bit of olive oil and then marinated in vinaigrette. You can leave the table, heat the pilaf, plate the entire main course, and rejoin your companion in less time than it takes Astrid Gilberto to sing "The Girl from Ipanema."

Keeping in mind that dessert should be portable and fun to eat (slightly messy doesn't hurt, either, but not too messy; you don't want the syrup from your poached pears running all over everywhere or everyone), I suggest you serve chocolate mousse or profiteroles. Either can be made well in advance and can be held in the refrigerator or freezer, respectively. If you serve profiteroles, you are legally obligated to serve a warm chocolate sauce with them, and the only sauce you should consider in this situation is ganache. Fortunately, ganache is among the most easily constructed of all sauces. Get out your four-cup measuring cup or a microwave-safe bowl of a similar size. Take one cup of heavy cream and heat on high in the microwave for ninety seconds. Then stir in twelve ounces of bittersweet chocolate (you can use a bag of chocolate chips here; I won't tell) until smooth. A tablespoon of either raspberry, orange, or hazelnut liqueur is a wonderful addition, but you can do without it if you're in a hurry to get back to the bedroom. Stick your finger in the sauce to make sure that it's warm but not so hot that it might burn whatever you happen to be pouring it on. The ganache will be thick enough so that if it starts to run, you will have plenty of time to catch it with your tongue before it can cause a laundry crisis.

(If you're serving the chocolate mousse, you're legally and morally obligated to serve whipped cream with it. I suggest one of these. Otherwise, your options are to keep your bowl and beaters in the freezer and whip your cream at the last minute, losing valuable time that could be spent doing things that none of us want to admit that we want to know the details of, or to use a can of Redi-whip or whatever they're calling that stuff these days. Neither of these options works, though I can only attest to the clumsiness of the former, never having resorted to the latter, which reminds me far too much of a story from one of my online friends who joined a new acquaintance in bed only to find that his playmate had brought along a can of aerosol processed cheese product. Really, if you want to surprise a new friend with the application of a cheese-based food, shouldn't you at least go to the effort of making fondue?)

Finally, remember that while you don't want to serve too much of anything at once, you should have plenty in reserve for seconds in the event that later in the evening when you ask your date "Would you like some more?" he thinks that you mean food. You can correct him after he's eaten.


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